Teenagers taking risks with health at an earlier age

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The Independent Online
ADOLESCENTS are adopting patterns of 'risk behaviour' at a younger age, including drinking alcohol, smoking and sexual activity, Dr Kenneth Calman, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, said yesterday.

He said health education and services needed to be aimed specifically at teenagers. Although health among the 6 million adolescents in England and Wales was 'by and large very good', he said drug misuse, rising suicides in young men and accidents related to alcohol were a cause for major concern.

Presenting his annual report, On the State of Public Health 1993, Dr Calman said: 'It is important that all people involved with this age group - parents, schools, health authorities and others - do all they can to promote healthy habits and ensure that services are targeted where they are most needed.

'Adolescents may have particular needs for health services distinct from those of children or adults.'

He says in the report that parents need to understand that the desire for privacy is a normal part of adolescence. 'Parental involvement and the adolescent's need for privacy in health care must be carefully balanced, as a concern for many adolescents is whether information shared in private will remain confidential.'

According to the report, although few teenagers abuse drugs, 16 per cent of boys and 14 per cent of girls have tried cannabis by the time they are 15; 5 per cent of boys and 2 per cent of girls have tried LSD; 4 per cent and 2 per cent amphetamines; 3 per cent and 1 per cent tranquillisers and ecstasy; and 1 per cent of each gender have tried heroin, crack and cocaine.

The report says smoking in the 11-15 age range shows no decline and is holding steady at 10 per cent, the same as in 1986, although adult smoking has fallen.

'From a very early age, young people develop a sophisticated awareness of alcohol and drinking behaviour. Recent surveys have shown that 20 per cent of 9 to 15- year-olds have had their first alcohol by the time they are 8 years and 89 per cent by 13 years.'

In England in 1992, 130 boys and 40 girls aged 15-19 died as a result of suicide or 'undetermined injury'. In 1969 the numbers were 73 and 36 respectively.

Dr Calman says in the report that recent social and legal changes and cultural expectations influence young people's behaviour. 'A rise in unemployment among school leavers, a shortage of alternative housing and time spent on higher education all lengthen dependency on parents.'

Overall, the nation's health has continued to improve. In 1992 infant mortality was the lowest recorded at 6.5 per 1,000 live births.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said Dr Calman's advice to target teenagers defied government policies. 'Virginia Bottomley has been closing down the channels for reaching young people,' he said.

'Co-ordination of health and education in schools has been drastically impaired by the removal of school nurses, drug and alcohol co-ordinators and by the recent downgrading of sex education by the Department for Education.'

On the State of Public Health 1993; HMSO; pounds 16.25.